- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 22, 2000

MOSCOW With a series of opinion polls now showing Vladimir Putin's popularity ratings apparently dipping below 50 percent, the Kremlin is pressuring Russia's 89 regional governors to get them to campaign on the acting president's behalf.

The Kremlin, which is determined to ensure that Mr. Putin wins an absolute majority in Sunday's presidential election, has threatened to call in loans from cash-strapped regional administrations to cajole the governors to campaign more actively or to switch their allegiance to him, if they have not done so yet.

In a news conference late on Monday, Aman Tuleyev, an outsider presidential candidate and governor of Kemerovo, abruptly announced he hoped Mr. Putin would win the election, saying he is the candidate most prepared for the presidency.

He added, "I would give my vote to Putin if the elections go to second round."

Mr. Tuleyev then conceded that his regional administration had not been immune from Kremlin coercion. When a region is dependent on funding from the federal budget, there are many ways to apply pressure, he said.

Yesterday a poll by the private Agency for Regional Political Research (ARP) put Mr. Putin at 48 percent with his nearest rival, Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, scoring 28 percent, his best rating so far in the campaign. If the poll were repeated on Sunday, then Mr. Putin would be forced into a mid-April runoff.

Kremlin officials believe the ARP poll is likely to be accurate, as it is in line with two other surveys taken earlier in the week.

The necessity of a runoff, presumably against Mr. Zyuganov, would prove embarrassing for the Kremlin, although there is no doubt Mr. Putin would enjoy a landslide victory over the Communist leader in a second round of balloting.

The Kremlin is pulling out all the stops in the run-up to Sunday to ensure a coronation for Boris Yeltsin's handpicked successor. Forty of the country's governors are up for re-election this year and all of them would benefit from either active Kremlin backing of their campaigns or at least its neutrality. The Kremlin has done much to indicate loyalty would be a good idea.

The Finance Ministry recently announced it was considering imposing full federal control over the budgets of problem regions.

And if anyone missed that message, there have been plenty of others to reinforce it. Both Mr. Putin and his officials recently talked about introducing a major constitutional change that would replace the current system of elections for governors to one of a system of presidential appointment.

Most governors have fallen in line. Last week, one of the last standouts, Moscow Mayor Yury Zuzhkov, who at one time harbored presidential ambitions himself, endorsed Mr. Putin. Before him, two of his allies, the governors of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, switched their allegiance to the acting president.

The state-owned bank Vneshekonombank has been a key weapon in gaining the governors' support, according to Segodnya newspaper. The bank has employed a carrot-and-stick approach, threatening either to call in loans or provide them.

Mr. Putin has also been replacing many of the regional presidential representatives with former regional chiefs from Russia's internal security agency, the FSB. Some analysts here say the more reluctant governors have been told about kompromat, or compromising personal information, held on them in FSB files.

The support of the governors is a key element in a winning presidential campaign. The governors generally control the local media.

On the national front the bulk of the media has been with Mr. Putin. With the election drawing nearer, state-run ORT and RTR television, from which most Russians get their news, have reduced noticeably their coverage of any election competitor but Mr. Putin.

The third-running candidate, democratic reformer Grigor Yavlinsky, leader of the Yabloko party, has had trouble getting his political ads aired on state-run television. On Monday, ORT declined to broadcast one spot, claiming it violated the criminal code.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide